Science - fast, furious, fascinating

May 13, 2007|By K.C. Cole | K.C. Cole,Los Angeles Times

The Canon

A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

By Natalie Angier

Houghton Mifflin / 304 pages / $27

One of the few books I ever stayed up all night to read was Knowledge and Wonder: The Natural World as Man Knows It, by the late great physicist Victor Weisskopf. In clear, simple prose, it introduced me to atoms and stars, crystals and metals, cells and life. All basic stuff: no black holes, no extra dimensions, no astonishing feats of genetic engineering. Nothing, in short, new. But it was wonder enough to alter me forever, turning a mild-mannered political and cultural writer into a science freak - the kind of person who drops dinner rolls at parties to demonstrate the equivalence of gravity and inertia.

Now Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for The New York Times, has produced another, much-needed book on the basics of science - a book she calls, without blinking, The Canon.

Too much science writing focuses narrowly on the new, as if any discovery made sense out of context, as if there were anything more wondrous than the "old stuff:" the life cycles of stars, the mating rituals of DNA, the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the atom. I still find the simplest things most astonishing. Tell me you aren't amazed (just think about it) that people on the other side of the Earth are walking around "upside down" as you read this sentence; that you can suspend 500,000 pounds of water in thin air with no visible support (build a cloud) or that our sun, by the alchemy of e=mc2, turns two dozen ocean liners' worth of matter into energy every single second.

Each 4-year-old is a natural scientist, but, somehow, growing up often takes the wonder out of knowledge. (To paraphrase Mark Twain, one should never let schooling interfere with learning.) So I hope a lot of people read Angier's book. I think they will. Though largely untutored in science, Americans crowd into science museums, read about science, tune in to science programs on TV. The weeklyTimes science section, Angier notes, is the most popular pull-out in that paper.

Her first chapters cover familiar, if important, ground: The foundation of science is evidence; we can't always predict where pure research will lead, so we need to support the scientific dreamers; math is "unreasonably effective" at making sense of nature. And science is our most powerful weapon against fear and superstition - our "candle in the dark," as Carl Sagan so eloquently put it.

We've heard most of this before - but that's part of the point. Angier's book is elementary, my dear reader. In the sections on math, she covers coincidence, the ambiguity of averages, the nature of randomness (which, she says, most people regard as "a kind of nervous tic: Sorry, sorry, can't stop twitching!"). She explains counting and powers of 10 and shows us that small things are very small (how many DNA molecules can sit on the head of a pin?) and big things very big. Best of all, she recommends Darrell Huff's 1954 classic, How to Lie With Statistics, a book that everyone should probably have close at hand - especially when contemplating the news.

Her chapter on chemistry is all about bonds: covalent, metallic, hydrogen, Van der Waals, ionic. We're introduced to oxidation, hydroxyl groups, endothermic and exothermic reactions, the basics of fermentation. Also the differences among solid, liquid and gas. The basics of the basics.

In physics, she covers protons and neutrons, atoms and isotopes and the fundamental forces of nature - including the so-called strong nuclear force, which, she tells us, "merits its swaggering codpiece of a name." She explains why your hair sticks up when you pull off your hat and that electrons "need some reason to get out of bed in the morning." We learn of kinetic and potential energy and why ice melts. Our cosmos, she writes, may have come into being out of nothing at all, perhaps along with others. She compares it to "a French pastry: full of air yet unspeakably rich, and really, don't you think one will do?"

Angier is at her best in biology, her specialty. "Surely the star-nosed mole didn't just happen," she writes, of a mole whose snout is ringed with 22 fleshy pink tentacles that wriggle like worms. "Surely there is a disgruntled employee in some dank basement cubicle to blame." She spells out how bacteria break down tooth enamel, with 600 different species taking part in this "chop op," and how shape-shifting proteins contort into notches, streamers and grasping fingers to keep things moving in the cell, acrobatics that scientists still don't entirely understand. Our bodies, she points out, are a whole lot smarter than we are.

Just as the subtitle promises, this is a "whirligig tour." Earth gets a good going-over, from cracked crust to molten core, and we get the basics of earthquakes, mountain building, continental drift. Also the sun and moon, planets and stars, galaxies, black holes and the Big Bang.

K.C. Cole teaches at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and is the author, most recently, of "Mind Over Matter: Conversations With the Cosmos." He wrote a longer version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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